Thursday, May 11, 2017

Diary of Gideon Welles: Wednesday, June 17, 1863

Had a telegram at ten last night from Mr. Felton, President of the Philadelphia & Baltimore Railroad, requesting that a gunboat might be sent to Havre de Grace to protect the Company's ferryboat and property. Says he has information that the Rebels intend going down the river to seize it.

I went forthwith to the War Department to ascertain whether there was really any such alarming necessity, for it seemed to me, from all I had been able to learn, that it was a panic invocation. Found the President and Stanton at the War Department, jubilant over intelligence just received that no Rebels had reached Carlisle, as had been reported, and it was believed they had not even entered Pennsylvania. Stanton threw off his reserve, and sneered and laughed at Felton's call for a gunboat. Soon a messenger came in from General Schenck, who declares no Rebels have crossed the Potomac, that the stragglers and baggage-trains of Milroy had run away in affright, and squads of them, on different parallel roads, had alarmed each other, and each fled in terror with all speed to Harrisburg. This alone was asserted to be the basis of the great panic which had alarmed Pennsylvania and the country.

The President was relieved and in excellent spirits. Stanton was apparently feeling well, but I could not assure myself he was wholly relieved of the load which had been hanging upon him. The special messenger brought a letter to Stanton, which he read, but was evidently unwilling to communicate its contents, even to the President, who asked about it. Stanton wrote a few lines, which he gave to the officer, who left. General Meigs came in about this time, and I was sorry to hear Stanton communicate an exaggerated account of Milroy's disaster, who, he said, had not seen a fight or even an enemy. Meigs indignantly denied the statement, and said Milroy himself had communicated the fact that he had fought a battle and escaped. While he (Meigs) did not consider Milroy a great general, or a man of very great ability, he believed him to be truthful and brave, and if General Schenck's messenger said there had been no fight he disbelieved him. Stanton insisted that was what the officer (whom I think he called Payson) said. I told him I did not so understand the officer. The subject was then dropped; but the conversation gave me uneasiness. Why should the Secretary of War wish to misrepresent and belittle Milroy? Why exaggerate the false rumor and try to give currency to, if he did not originate, the false statement that there was no fight and a panic flight?

The President was in excellent humor. He said this flight would be a capital joke for Orpheus C. Kerr to get hold of. He could give scope to his imagination over the terror of broken squads of panic-stricken teamsters, frightened at each other and alarming all Pennsylvania. Meigs, with great simplicity, inquired who this person (Orpheus C. Kerr) was. “Why,” said the President, “have you not read those papers? They are in two volumes; any one who has not read them must be a heathen.” He said he had enjoyed them greatly, except when they attempted to play their wit on him, which did not strike him as very successful, but rather disgusted him. “Now the hits that are given to you, Mr. Welles, or to Chase, I can enjoy, but I dare say they may have disgusted you while I was laughing at them. So vice versa as regards myself.” He then spoke of a poem by this Orpheus C. Kerr which mythologically described McClellan as a monkey fighting a serpent representing the Rebellion, but the joke was the monkey continually called for “more tail,” “more tail,” which Jupiter gave him, etc., etc.

SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 332-3

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